The latest of my occasional reflections on the problems I most often come across when critiquing manuscripts concerns POV or point of view, also commonly called viewpoint. I’m pretty sure the writing world has stolen the term POV from the film world, where it’s used in scripts to show that a particular shot is to be filmed as if through the eyes of a particular character. I find it interesting that in an age where more people are interested in watching a screen than reading something on a page, writing seems to have become more and more influenced by filmmaking, and I’ll look at another aspect of writing where I believe this has happened in a later posting.
It’s very common for less experienced writers to overlook the importance of the viewpoint of a novel. They simply start writing from their narrator’s point of view and go wherever it suits them. So we might start with Cinderella reflecting on how unhappy she is having to do all the work around the place and how badly treated by the Ugly Sisters she is.
This could be in the first person (I just feel so tired all the time. They make me work from dawn till dusk and no matter how hard I try all they do is criticise). But probably the commonest technique in contemporary fiction is the third person (She just felt so tired all the time. They made her work from dawn to dusk and no matter how hard she tried all they did was criticise.)
Note that although it’s not in the first person it’s still as if we are being told something by Cinders or at least are privy to her thoughts.
But then the writer will jump to another character in the next paragraph. We’ll call Ugly Sister 1 Marjory, just because we can: Marjory had always been jealous of Cinderella’s good looks. She saw the way the Handsome Prince’s eyes had lit up when he saw Cinders at the ball – and she was going to do he damndest to make sure the lazy cow never saw him again.
Then just for good measure, the narrator throws in his two pennyworth: What none of them knew was that the Handsome Prince had tracked down the home of the owner of the lost slipper and was just about to knock on the door…
I’ve even seen manuscripts where the viewpoint of the protagonist’s pet has been included in the mix!
This type is not technically wrong in any grammatical or other way. You will even see it in print to occasionally, especially in lightweight thrillers where the action and the bangs and flashes are more important than any highbrow literary considerations. But I wouldn’t recommend it. In general it does tend to mark a writer out as inexperienced, whereas a consistent viewpoint tends to give the impression of someone who has taken the trouble to learn and refine his or her craft.
One of the main reasons is that jumping from character to character breaks the spell. We get drawn into Cinderella’s inner world, we start to believe in it, maybe even imagine it’s us facing all these problems – then bang, we are inside a completely different character’s head, then another, then back to the original one. It distances us from the characters, reminds us we are being told a story rather than becoming so immersed in it that, just as when we watch a good film, we almost think we’re one of the characters in it.
Sticking to Cinder’s viewpoint means that we can’t know what Marjory is thinking so it is a limitation – but there are ways round it. Cinders can observe from Marjory’s expressions and body language that she’s jealous and out to cause trouble. And, of course, Marjory can speak for herself! Her feelings can come out during dialogue – but make it seem natural, not too obviously something stuck in there to explain the situation to the reader.
And a consistent POV isn’t as limiting as it might seem. The idea of consistency is to do with not head-hopping, as it’s sometimes called, within a page, within a chapter. We may well need to cut from the house where Cinders lives to the Handsome Prince’s palace and show how he can’t sleep till he finds the owner of the slipper. As long as this switch of viewpoint is given its own chapter or at least sub-chapter, then the transition is perfectly acceptable. Alternating viewpoints can be a very effective device if treated in that way. Many good thrillers keep switching from the goodie to the baddie as the plot slowly works towards bringing them together in an exciting climax. But this is almost always done by alternating chapters rather than jumping around willy-nilly.
With all these ‘rules’ you will, as I say, come across exceptions in print – and sometimes very big selling, famous ones. I remember reading years ago a quote by a big horror writer. I can’t remember which one it was, but he said, regarding the criticism which was often levelled at the quality of his writing, something along the lines of: ‘It was quite a few years before I realised I was a bad writer – and by then I was a millionaire so it seemed a bit late to do anything about it!’